Licensing and Copyright

The majority of historical societies will find that they hold large collections of photographs and documents that researchers may want to publish as part of their research.  This may be in a PhD thesis, a published book, or it may be used on television or quoted on the radio.

Where such use is made of records in the historical society's care, it is recommended that the images or text be licensed to the individual to use.  This may also include requiring the payment of a fee, especially if the recipient is going to be using the image or text commercially.

Ownership, copyright and licensing

Before licensing the use of items within a collection it is useful to identify the following.

Who owns the document/image? 

If the document and image is owned by the historical society then licensing the image should not be too much of a problem.  However, if it is only deposited with you, with ownership retained by someone else, then you may need to check the deposit agreement with the owner, or consult with the owner, before the image may be licensed.

Who owns the copyright?

Ownership of a physical item does not mean that you hold the copyright in it.  

Copyright is normally owned by the creator of a photograph or archive document, or possibly their employer.  So, copyright in a photograph will normally lie with the photographer and copyright in a letter will lie with the author.  It may be that a document has more than one copyright.  For example, a postcard sent to someone will have one copyright holder for the image on the postcard and another for the text of the postcard.

Copyright is heritable and can be gifted away by the copyright owner or inherited by their next of kin.  So, tracing a copyright holder can be difficult.  

Copyright expires after a given time, usually so many years after the death of the initial copyright holder (usually the creator of the document).  Due to numerous Copyright Acts, the expiry dates differ depending on the format of the item, date of its creation and various other factors.  Useful flow diagrams on copyright expiry are produced in Tim Padfield's Copyright for Archivists and Records Managers, 4th edn  (London: Facet, 2010).  The Tasglann is happy to offer advice and help in determining copyright in material, although this should not be considered legal advice.


If someone wishes to reproduce an archive image or document from the collection it is their responsibility to clear any copyright restrictions.  The historical society may be able to help in directing the researcher to the copyright holder but the onus is on the researcher.

Due to the difference between ownership of the physical item and the holder of its copyright, historical societies are recommended to licence use of an item to a researcher who wishes to publish it in some form rather than license the copyright.  If you hold the copyright, then this isn't an issue.

Licensing Fees

Museum nan Eilean, Western Isles Libraries and Tasglann ann Eilean Siar have produced a scale of charges for licensing images and text which is available to download to the right of this screen.  These have been established through benchmarking against other museums and archives and are therefore suitable for use by historical societies.

All licensing should be documented and sample licensing forms are provided on this page.  You should also request that the historical society is credited publicly as the source of the image or item.

Reprographic fees

As well as charging a license fee for the use of images from your collections, it is also common to charge a reprographic fee for creating a digital surrogate for the user.  Sample fees are included in the attached guidance. 

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